By Subha Srinivasan ~~~~
When I was first introduced to loving-kindness practice, also known as metta, I had been practicing mindfulness meditation for two or three years. My primary focus had been breath and body. I judged my practice primarily by how focused I could get. There was much striving present––there was a goal. The goal was enlightenment, and I believed sincerely that I could focus my way into it!
At that time, I had recently heard of the Insight Meditation Society Retreat Center from my fellow meditators in the Valley Insight community. When I looked into it and saw an open spot available in an upcoming week-long metta retreat with Michele McDonald and Rebecca Bradshaw, I signed up for it without knowing anything about metta practice or how it might differ from the meditation I had been doing. At the retreat, as I learned and practiced with loving-kindness, I sensed deeply that this was what I needed for healing my heart and peeling away the layers of conditioning around striving and self-judgment.
In the retreat, we learned and worked extensively with one of the ways that metta practice is traditionally taught––the one in which you are given and encouraged to use phrases of well-wishes as a point of focus. You begin with directing the metta phrases to the benefactor (someone who loves you easily) and then move them to yourself, then to a neutral person, and then to challenging person(s) and so on; ultimately extending metta to all beings. Metta for my benefactors and friends was easy for me, and yet I struggled with directing metta towards myself. During the retreat, my teachers talked about taking one’s time with the benefactor, and also about the practice taking many shapes––in formal practice and in daily life. Both of these suggestions have become a central part of my own practice. Indeed, I have come to realize that our life is our practice!
For me, my parenting journey this past decade and my metta journey are closely linked. During my pregnancy, I practiced metta almost every day, directing it towards my unborn child, while taking walks along Occom pond and feeling the care of the trees bearing witness to my love. I was committed to taking care of myself, for I knew that nourishment towards myself would also nourish the being inside. I wonder sometimes why I needed to become a mother to take care of myself in that way. Why can we not take care of ourselves with that much love, and commit to birthing the highest self we possibly can be? We are so conditioned to think that self-care can be selfish, and yet does it not benefit all those around us when we feel cared for and appreciated?
When I became a mother, I felt, for the first time in my life, the power of being loved unconditionally. My daughter preferred me to all others. She turned towards me and she loved me, not for my accomplishments or good qualities, but simply for my being there. That was all that was expected of me––to show up. That is it! How profound a lesson. In receiving that unconditional love, slowly the realization came to me, within my body, that I too was worthy of love. As my daughter grew, I continued to practice metta, and metta for her came easily. Slowly, over time, the ongoing, intentional practice made me realize how much love my own heart was capable of. I knew that what I wished for her, I could extend to myself. And I could extend it and expand the circle to include others. Indeed, in loving the other, we discover and touch deeply the tenderness of our own heart.
So, the first gift of metta practice is one of patience. Take your time with the benefactor. The benefactor is that being for whom loving comes easily, naturally, and fills us like the warmth of the sun on a cold day. I found that within the benefactor is everyone else! Just as the poet Rumi discovered that in his spiritual union with Shams was his union with everything and everyone. In “The Self We Share” as translated by Coleman Barks, Rumi writes:
You are the source of my life. You honor my soul. You bring rivers from mountain springs. You brighten my eyes. The wine you offer takes me out of myself into the self we share. Doing this is religion.
So I encourage you to find that heart-opening connection to your benefactor and to practice with it and to take your time.
Years ago, before I became a parent, I had been suffering the effects of Lyme Disease, and I was talking to my counselor, Jim, about the struggles of performing in my job when not feeling well. I had been preparing for a talk at a conference, and I was overwhelmed by how much I was juggling. Jim told me, “Imagine you have a daughter who is struggling the way you are. What would you say to her?”
At that moment, I had no idea what he was getting at. I probably said something like: “I would say, ‘Stop complaining and just do it!’” But I would never say that to my daughter now. In fact, I would never say to my child, or to anyone I love, some of the things I say to myself.
The process of metta practice allows us to deeply examine our own prejudices, self-judgments, and biases. We can do this honestly, because the question of loving ourselves is no longer on the table. Through the practice of unconditional love, we know we are loved independent of our thoughts and actions, and therefore, we can take responsibility for them. Metta gives us the resilience to face ourselves honestly––and to peel away the layers of conditioning, so that we can see more clearly the beloved within us, the awakened self, the unconditionally loving self that is within us all. This is the second lesson of metta. This softening of our inner talk is best said through these lines from the poem titled “If You Would Grow,” by Daniel Mead:
We can endure agonies, but we open fully only to warmth and light
And our need to grow is as fragile as a fragrance dispersed by storms of will
To return only when those storms are still
So, accept, respect, and attend your sensitivity
A flower cannot be opened with a hammer.
The third and last lesson of metta is to appreciate every glimpse we get of the divine loving self within ourselves. When I was growing up in Chennai, India, my parents loved to visit temples. We would wake up early in the morning and take long road trips to reach far away temples, where we would stand in long lines for hours, for an approximately two- to five-minute darshan (glimpse) of the deity. I would watch as my mom prepared for that glimpse, and in the final moments of waiting, a look of profound devotion and presence would come over her. I have had similar experiences in my own favorite temple, at the altar of the goddess Parvati. There, the timing of our visit was often such that the doors to the main altar of the goddess would be closed, because the priest would be preparing the goddess. There would be this anticipation in the air, everyone fervently waiting for darshan. Then the door would open. I would take it in––the goddess, life sized, resplendently dressed in silks, with garlands of roses, and the aroma of incense and turmeric and kumkum. In that moment, I felt perfectly awake, so present in my body, one with this goddess who radiated love towards me. I can bring to my mind that moment––any time I want––that was how powerful my own presence was!
Each moment of wakefulness is like that––a darshan, a glimpse of our own awakened heart. When we take that in fully, through every fiber of our being, we can rely on that in times of need. So pause, appreciate, reflect on the goodness of your own heart and slowly allow your heart to expand in that joyful union!
Voices from the Sangha: This month’s guest essay is by Subha Srinivasan. Subha has been a member of the Valley Insight community since 2007, and she attended her first week-long retreat, a metta retreat, in 2008. Doreen Schweizer, Michele McDonald, Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield are among her primary teachers and influences, and she is also grateful for many spiritual friends in the community who continue to inspire her journey. She is excited to be in her first year of the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program (MMTCP) from Sounds True, with Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield.
The MMTCP program provides a wonderful way to deepen and commit to the practice of mindfulness and to explore ways to bring the practice alive for others in a meaningful and trauma-sensitive manner. The program has multiple components including video lectures, reading, journaling as well as monthly mentor and peer group meetings. A key component of MMTCP includes diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility; the students get to work within affinity groups to explore issues around race and diversity in their own lives and communities. More information on the MMTCP program can be found here: https://mmtcp.